(the story that Homer forgot to mention in his Illiad)
KATE. ...in all probability, we are the first human beings who ever set foot on this enchanting spot.
ISABEL. Except the mermaids â€“ it's the very place for mermaids...
(W. S. Gilbert and A. Sullivan, â€œPirates of Penzance)
â€œLook out below!â€ screamed Patrocles as another wave crashed upon the trireme. One of the veteran sailors, Patrocles knew full well the dangers of the waves on an unstable sea-going craft like the oar-and-sail-powered Greek trireme.
â€œQuit yer screaming â€“ some of us are trying to get some kip!â€ Bellowed Ajax from below deck. Tall, bearded and muscular, Ajax was surely one of the most feared Greek generals going to war. Like all his men, Ajax fought with spear, short sword and shield; and many was the time when he inspired them to victory by leading from the front and bellowing â€œAt â€˜em! Câ€™mon!â€ and other such stirring slogans. It was generally agreed, however, that although Ajax was undoubtedly one of the strongest soldiers the Greeks had, and one of the most endowed with courage, he was not one for planning, nor particularly brainy.
The sailor Patrocles stared into the gloom below deck, furiously trying to pick out Ajax. â€œTriremes are not meant for a sea voyage,â€ he hissed between gritted teeth. â€œTheyâ€™re not stable enough! We use â€˜em to fight close to shore, where conditions are calmer and the god Poseidon looks upon us with favour â€“ we dare not venture any further out, lest his creatures swallow us alive or lure us to our dooms!â€
â€œWell, whatever youâ€™re doing, do it more quietly,â€ Ajax grumbled as he headed back to his hammock. â€œIâ€™m trying to get some sleep.â€
Patrocles cursed under his breath. A whole lot of good that over-muscled idiot is, he thought. Five weeks we been at sea, and for what? Some amorous Greek prince and his over-rated female going over the sea to â€“ where was it? Troy? And what was her name â€“ Elena? Hades take â€˜em both for all the help theyâ€™re giving us!
It had never been a particularly harmonious journey. Relations between the Greek army and navy were always strained, and no wonder, as both men â€“ Patrocles commanding the navy, and Ajax the army â€“ thought they ought to be in charge. Patrocles at least had some rational reason to believe this; he was one of the most experienced sea-going soldiers the Greeks had, and as such was given command of the navy. But Ajax...? Ajax just thinks he ought to lead us all the time, thought Patrocles bitterly. But is he leading us to our dooms?
The triremes groaned in the swelling seas as the oarsmen â€“ not slaves, but free men from all over Greece who volunteered for the adventure â€“ strained with all their might. â€œWe oughtta whip some shape into â€˜em,â€ grumbled Ajax as he headed above deck for some fresh air.
â€œAnd you oughtta shut yer mouth,â€ Patrocles snapped back. â€œYou whip those men and they wonâ€™t be able to row so hard. Whatâ€™re you trying to do, make â€˜em so weak they wonâ€™t be able to row, and leave us high and dry, at the mercy of Poseidonâ€™s winds and foul creatures? Just let me do my job, Achaean, and you can do yours!â€
â€œBut weâ€™re not moving anywhere as fast as we ought to,â€ Ajax protested. â€œWe should be twenty leagues away from Athens by now!â€
â€œAnd is this my fault?â€ Patrocles threw up his hands in exasperation. â€œYou know as well as I do that we cannot travel at night, for the winds are low and the men exhausted, and we dare not travel in a storm. We must beach the ships every evening to let the men rest and forage for their food, or fight the locals for it. If you can think of a way to give our ships extra wind, Telamonian Ajax of Salamis, Iâ€™d like to hear it!â€
Not that it should be hard to get some extra wind from Ajax, Patrocles thought with a hidden smile as the general stalked away in a huff. Olâ€™ Ajax may be a strong and worthy warrior, but put him on the seas and he becomes nothing but a windbag!
Well then, weâ€™ll let him huff and puff for all his worth, and weâ€™ll see how far it gets him...
It was a week later, and relations between the two had almost reached breaking point. In fact, they would almost have come to blows had it not been for the wrinkled Androcles, an old sailor who had served in the navy all his life, and was now approaching sixty and nearing retirement.
Good old Androcles, thought Patrocles with a smile. A salty old sea dog he may be, and he may tell some tall tales, but on the seas Iâ€™d rather trust to him than any number of omens or soldiers!
â€œWhatever you do, watch out for Poseidonâ€™s creatures,â€ Androcles had told him once. â€œHis sirens will lure you to your death with their singing, and Scylla the six-headed sea serpent would surely crack open any trireme that sails too close to her.â€ He sighed. â€œThat is, of course,â€ he added, â€œunless the unlucky ship cracks on the rocks of Charbydis instead. But,â€ Androcles added with a smile, â€œluckily there is only one Scylla, and as long as we stay away from her, all we have to worry about are the seagulls.â€
At long last, the journey was nearing its end. Troy was in sight, and Ajax was spurring Patrocles on towards the rocky shore. â€œOn, on!â€ he urged. â€œMy spear longs to taste Trojan blood!â€
â€œPatience, Ajax,â€ Patrocles warned him, â€œor our triremes may be wrecked on those rocks!â€
â€œBut...!â€ cried Ajax, straining his eyes to see the distant shore.
â€œIf you tell me how to do my job one more time, Ajax of Salamis,â€ said Patrocles sternly, â€œI shall give you a really hard smack. Be told.â€
â€œThatâ€™s not what I was going to say,â€ Ajax sulked, squinting in the sunlight and trying to make out the distant figures. â€œBut arenâ€™t those...â€ he squinted. â€œ...arenâ€™t those mermaids on the rocks?â€
â€œCHANGE COURSE!â€ Patrocles screamed, frantically hauling on ropes and signalling his seamen to do likewise, and shouting warnings below. A young sailor came running up, straining his eyes. â€œWhatâ€™s wrong with mermaids?â€ he demanded. â€œI heard that they be but good omens for sailors.â€
â€œDonâ€™t you believe it, Apion,â€ Androcles warned him, â€œwomen and sea...â€
â€œOh, shut yer trap, you yellow-bellied blowfish!â€ Apion threw up his hands in defiance. â€œWho made you the fount of all knowledge?â€ He squared his jaw in determination. â€œWell, I donâ€™t care what you say â€“ Iâ€™m going to find out!â€
And before anyone could stop him, Apion had raced off towards the prow and jumped overboard, resolutely swimming in the mermaidsâ€™ direction.
â€œSTOP, YOU YOUNG FOOL!â€ screamed Patrocles, but even as he did so, he knew it was too late.
Even years later, Patrocles would say that the next few moments had branded themselves forever on his memory. There were the mermaids, the beautiful half-women, half-fish creatures, sunning themselves on the rocks and singing so beautifully as to break a manâ€™s heart. (They were a coloratura soprano and a mezzo-soprano combining with two altos, in case anyoneâ€™s interested).
There was young Apion, gods take him, swimming for all he was worth, towards the mermaids â€“ who smiled beatifically as he reached them, and took him into their arms...
Patrocles shuddered at the inevitability of what he knew would happen next, as the mermaids dived, with Apion still in their arms.
The young sailor opened his mouth to scream, and salt water filled his lungs...
...and then was seen no more.
â€œLet that be a salutary lesson to all of you,â€ Patrocles sighed as he turned back to the other sailors, who were open-mouthed in shock at what they had just witnessed, â€œnever to treat Poseidonâ€™s playthings with anything but the utmost caution!â€
He sighed as the first trireme beached itself upon the beaches of Troy. The long journey was finally at an end.
â€œCome on,â€ he said with a weary shrug. â€œLetâ€™s just do what we came here to do. Letâ€™s finish this silly war business, and then we can all go home...â€
Ajax of Salamis is, of course, one of the major figures of Homerâ€™s Illiad and a major figure in Greek mythology.
I picked out the name â€œPatroclesâ€ because it had a nice Greek ring. Later on I found there were several historical people by that name (including a poet, a philosopher and a general).
Androcles is the man in the classical Roman legend who pulls a thorn out of a lionâ€™s paw. There was, however, a much earlier Androcles connected with decisive events during the Pelopennesian wars between Athens and Sparta.
Apion appears to have been a classical writer with some virulent anti-Semitic views. I picked his name simply because it reads like â€œa peonâ€, and therefore an insignificant kind of person.
At one stage in the story, Androcles seems to channel Waylon Smithers, Mr Burnsâ€™ assistant, in â€œThe Simpsonsâ€, when he talks about women and seamen.
Finally, a word on mermaids. Mermaids in the modern popular imagination have been considerably cleaned up since they were first invented â€“ by whom, none can say; but ever since human beings first built ships, they also invented dangerous mythological creatures to inhabit the seas. Mermaids were among them â€“ some mermaids were wise and kind, but most were innocent of the world above the waves, and therefore dangerous.
Most people imagine mermaids only from what theyâ€™d seen on Disneyâ€™s â€œThe Little Mermaidâ€, perhaps from when they watched it while young or while babysitting. In contrast, mermaids have featured in the mythology of almost every sea-going civilisation throughout history. They were not always much fun.